Driving Change: Dispatch from the UNESCO Youth Forum

Andrew Leon Hanna and Blair Brettschneider
November 14, 2011

Picture this: more than 211 young people of different backgrounds, colors, ethnicities and beliefs all together in one room. That was the scene of the seventh annual UNESCO Youth Forum, held in Paris this October. And it was cool.

At the Forum, we discussed what we (young people) see as the main challenges facing us and our peers and drafted recommendations to present to the UNESCO General Conference.

Along the way, we discovered a few things about both ourselves, and the nations we represent—in our case, the U.S. Here's what jumped out at me:

  • There is a real sense of responsibility that comes with being American. We felt a certain inspiration sitting behind the U.S. plaque. It made us want to present an image of America that reflects all the amazing, diverse youth doing great things back at home.  When other delegates were working diligently to stand up for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, and LGBT communities, we felt a sense of pride in saying “the United States supports you,” instead of just “Blair and Andrew support you.”
  • So much can be learned from looking at things from others' perspectives. On our first day, we had lunch with Timothy, a delegate from Zambia, who expressed his frustration with perceptions of Africa. He said he was tired of the way many people portray Africa as a desperate continent full of problems, and lacking competent people who can solve those problems. According to Timothy, Africa shouldn’t be considered a charity case. As the American delegates, we had been worried about possible negative stereotypes that could be cast upon us, and then realized that we weren’t the only ones.

Andrew and Blair showing their U.S. spirit at the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, France in October 2011.
  • There will always be incredibly significant obstacles to positive change. Even with such an awesome group of driven young people, the tendency still existed for delegates to look narrowly at their own community’s problems without considering the larger picture. It’s human nature to want to look out for “our people” first, and this problem plagues all forms of representative government. With more inter-cultural, international dialogue, however, we can make this challenge much less daunting. It is only with these discussions that we can begin to expand our view of “our people” to include more than just those in our communities or our countries.
  • It would be amazing to see how the world would work if youth suddenly took the reins of power. If we had our way, everyone would have access to free education, there would be accountability for all types of discrimination, girls would be able to stay in school, refugees and immigrants would have a voice (and the world would listen) and everyone would be aware of sustainable development and solutions for the environment.

Sounds wildly idealistic, right? Not to us. The best part is that we as young people don’t tend to look at these things like ideals that can never be reached.  The delegates are actively taking steps towards these goals in their own countries and communities, and they aren’t letting anyone tell them that their goals are out of reach or unrealistic.

  • Peace is within reach. We’re young and, yes, idealistic, but we’re not naïve.  It’s hard to go to a conference and call for peace on behalf of a country that is involved in…how many wars, now?
  • As difficult as that was, it provided us with an opportunity. One fantastic moment of the Forum was meeting Zahraa, a delegate from Iraq. Blair had worked with Iraqi refugee girls, and wanted to meet her. Zahraa was so kind, and even gave us a published report about Iraqi youth, full of useful information about the girls in Blair’s program. Throughout the rest of the day, we always smiled and said hello in passing, even though we couldn’t speak the same language. That certainly doesn’t end or erase years of war, but at least we both know we’re on each other’s side.

In fact, if there’s one message that we want to share after this week, it is this: there exists an underlying peace, unity and happiness that's waiting to be realized. There is hope as long as we are willing to spend enough time with one another to realize that beyond any differences, we are all human beings seeking the same things: love, support, and happiness.

We arrived in Paris with open minds and a willingness to get to know each other. We left with dear friends from around the world who we are now willing to fight for. We discussed, we argued, we laughed, we celebrated.

Call us overly optimistic if you want, but we have great hope for this generation and the future of our world. And we’ve got 211 (and counting) young leaders from all corners of the globe who will back us up.

Andrew Leon Hanna and Blair Brettschneider represented the United States at the 7th Annual UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris this October.  Also check out Andrew's pre-Forum blog, Time to Stop Asssuming and Start Listening to Our World's Youth.


Blair Brettschneider graduated from the University of Miami in 2009. She lives in Chicago and is the founder and Executive Director of GirlForward, an organization that provides mentorship, educational programs and leadership opportunities to adolescent refugee girls who have been resettled in Chicago.



Andrew Leon Hanna is sophomore class president at Duke University and a Robertson Scholar. He is studying Public Policy at Duke, and is the founder of a peer mentoring organization called IGNITE, which focuses on high school freshmen.